What’s the difference between a gig and a job?

Not that much, from the outside.  But inside your head, make sure you know the difference and make sure you follow the unwritten protocols.  A gig is a great way to bridge a period of unemployment, when you can’t leap forward to your next career step, or find the job you really want.  A gig by nature is temporary and transient, off the path, sometimes way off.

A gig can keep you earning, producing income and maintaining the balance of your reserves, as well as keep you busy and out of your own head.  No one can conduct career management or a job search as if it were a job, despite what the old outplacement professionals used to advise.  “Your new job is finding a job” suggests a level of manageability and control that isn’t realistic, and a pace that never was.  The pace that’s implied in a day in and day out job search will quickly produce boredom, desperation, and bad judgment, not to mention a reduction in self confidence.

Some of the best candidates I’ve ever interviewed were individuals who had taken a detour or a side road to get where they were going.  Relaxed, self confident, and good humored, these individuals could cite the best things about selling on Ebay, substitute teaching, coaching troubled kids, working in retail stores, painting houses, tending bar.   Not anyone’s first career choice, a gig nonetheless can keep you sane, humble, active, and curious, while paying bills and remaining connected to the world.

A gig might be in your career field, but if it is you have to be extremely careful to choose something that isn’t too close to the real job you want.  For example, if you were a CFO and the gig you choose is doing the books for a nonprofit, you’re fine.  But if you accept a job as Director of Accounting, that’s not a gig.  It might make sense for other reasons–you were CFO of a $70M company and the Director of Accounting job is with a $6B corporation.  But it’s not a gig.  You may also switch industries and take steps backward; you can change fields and take steps back: not a gig, a job.

And there are other obligations and conventions:

1.  You have to acknowledge the temporary nature of the gig, for you.  Your fellow workers may not be so temporary, and it isn’t okay to pretend you aren’t.  There are a few exceptions to this: when it’s obvious (you are a PhD botanist working on a landscaping crew), when you are making a total career change and starting at the very bottom (you are a caterer en route to becoming an executive chef, working in a kitchen), or the job is advertised as temporary (you are an accountant working as a substitute math teacher).

2.  Think about what happens when you leave the gig, because the gig remains in your employment history and the folks you worked for become references.  So communicate in such a way that you get a send off celebration when you move on, instead of daggers in your back as the result of all that expensive training they wasted on you.

3.  The gig has to have a story that goes with it, a thing you tell everyone about.  You have to justify this and you have to make it work.  Authenticity is what it’s all about.  The story is the answer to the question, “so what are you doing now?” when it’s asked in the course of your networking meetings, which are now scheduled around your gig.  “Working at Home Depot, for the discount on our new kitchen,” is a good one, so is “working at the hospital while I decide which graduate school for public health to apply to” is also great.  Another approach: “We have very tight investment goals, so I’m working to keep my money working!”  I love that one.  And I’ve only heard it once, but knowing the person who said it, I knew it was not only true, but evidence of her drive.

4.  Do not get too comfy.  If you complain about the boss, working conditions, pay, schedule, or break room, you are in trouble.  And you can make suggestions about improving business, but under no circumstances can you wonder why or complain that your ideas haven’t been adopted.

5.  Your coworkers are in jobs, not gigs; you aren’t better and you aren’t worse.  They are fellow travelers.  If you’ve handled this right, you won’t make them look bad and you will work to make all of you look good.

6.  Plan your exit at the beginning of the gig and stick to the plan.  Do not stop your job search process; do not change your career identity without a specific plan.

7.  On your resume, or in your cover letter, a gig has to be handled carefully but directly.  I might keep it off the resume and put the short version of the story in your cover letter.

8.  When you encounter network connections in the course of the gig–like the head of the company you want to work for showing up at the bar you are tending one afternoon, know you can’t blurt your story right there.  Your first obligation is to your coworkers, boss, and the owner of the business from which your paycheck springs forth.   There is plenty of time, and more than one route to explaining yourself.  Career moves emerge from relationships, not the other way around.

9.  Keep track of new skills and new learning; think about what you are accomplishing, and talk about it to your friends and family.  Set a good example for others; don’t apologize for the path you took.

10.  If you hate the gig, get a different gig.  Gigs are like that; short and sweet, easy to get and easy to leave.  Take advantage of the gig, politely, of course.  Don’t do anything you really hate for any length of time.

Above all, a gig should fuel creativity and make you feel a little like a fugitive from your real life.  Go for it and don’t look back.

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